After school shut down last spring, Ryan Jodharam spent his days sleeping, watching TV, looking for work, but not finding any. Sometimes he swam in his pool and played on a trampoline.
“I was just wasting my time,” Jodharam, a slim 16-year-old, told me. “I couldn’t go anywhere.”
For the past two weeks, Jodharam, a junior at Schenectady High School, has had a place to go: A new program, at Key Hall at Proctors, that gives students a safe, nurturing place to study, interact with peers and participate in group conversations and other structured activities facilitated by caring adults.
In previous years, Jodharam and the other teens in the program would have been at Schenectady High School on the afternoon I observed them, attending class and socializing with friends.
This year, Schenectady’s seventh through 12th graders go to school remotely, logging in to classes on computers and other digital devices.
It’s a shift that could have devastating consequences, especially for lower-income Black and brown children.
Virtual school just isn’t as good as in-person school – “this is not school to me,” Jodharam said, while watching an online geometry class on his Chromebook – and educational experts have warned that vulnerable children will fall further behind if online learning continues.
Now a coalition of Schenectady non-profit organizations, churches and youth leaders are springing into action, working to establish a network of community-based learning centers where students can go during the day for guidance and enrichment.
Called Bridging the Gap, the initiative aims to fill the void created by the withdrawal of the city’s in-person public school system.
“Our kids already have too many barriers to their success,” said Robert Carreau, executive director of The Schenectady Foundation, the philanthropic trust facilitating Bridging the Gap. “Our concern is that students could be really negatively impacted in terms of their advancement, in terms of their learning.”
“The social and emotional damage is hard to calculate,” said Shane Bargy, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Schenectady. “There will be irreparable damage to the development of these kids if we don’t work together to help them achieve educationally, socially and emotionally.”
The Key Hall program is a pilot that will eventually expand.
At the moment it serves between eight to 12 teenage boys, all of whom are affiliated with My Brother’s Keeper, an organization that aims to close the opportunity and achievement gap among young men of color.
On the day I was there, the boys filed in around noon, after getting their temperatures checked and cleaning their hands with hand sanitizer. They started the afternoon off with slices of pizza, then gathered in a circle to play a call-and-response game called Zoo. After that, they each sat quietly at a table, attending class and doing homework.
“When the district announced that grades seven through 12 were going fully virtual, I knew we needed to find something to minimize the impact,” community leader Damonni Farley told me. “I understood that we were going to have to build quickly.”
Farley’s consulting firm, Common Thread Consultants, is running the Key Hall site in partnership with My Brother’s Keeper and other non-profits that serve youth. He told me that he’s identified seven other sites for community-based learning centers, and that they should be operational soon.
The hope, he said, is that the different organizations involved in Bridging the Gap will be able to share resources, complementing each other’s strengths and accomplishing more together than they would separately.
“We are a struggling community, but we are rich in people and resources,” Farley said.
One longstanding organization that has extended its schedule to meet the needs of local youth is the Boys & Girls Club of Schenectady.
The non-profit opened a beautiful new headquarters in Mont Pleasant in February – only to suspend its youth programming for 15 weeks when the pandemic hit. The building served as the base of operations for Schenectady County’s emergency response coalition in the spring, and welcomed youth back during the summer.
Now it opens at 11:30 a.m. on weekdays to students of all ages, who are assigned to small pods. These pods travel throughout the building together, but do not mix – a COVID-19 restriction aimed at limiting person-to-person contact.
“We can keep people safe, and we can keep the kids coming,” Bargy said.
When I stopped by the Boys & Girls Club earlier this week, some students were finishing up their remote learning and transitioning into the games and activities more typical of an afterschool program. Right now, there are about 60 students at the B&G headquarters, with 40 more expected. The building can hold about 400, but is limiting capacity due to the pandemic.
“Some of our kids go to school and get dropped off after school,” Bargy said. “Some are all-virtual, and their parents have them come here to learn. … The schools all have an incredibly difficult, complicated job right now, and we feel like it’s our job to do as much as we can to help the districts. We want to support kids who might fall through the cracks.”
“It is a massive undertaking to make sure every kid and teen is getting what they need,” said Bargy, a Bridging the Gap member.
Schenectady’s Liberty Church, on Albany Street, is also involved in Bridging the Gap.
Two weeks ago, the church launched a day-long program that provides students in need with a place to go between 7:45 a.m. and 8:15 p.m.
“When we heard that grades seven through 12 were going fully online, we understood that there were kids who would be in a vulnerable position,” said Dennis Graham-Parker, lead pastor at the church. “We have good Internet and a gym. We can take them in there for games and workouts. We give them lunch every day. We have volunteers who can help them with their schoolwork.”
The groups involved in Bridging the Gap are doing important and necessary work.
But it makes me sad – and more than a little bit angry – that they have to do it.
The unfortunate, maddening truth is that the needs of children and teenagers have been neglected throughout the pandemic.
Crucial resources and supports have been removed, and few in government have made investing in the education and well-being of our youth a priority. In fact, the opposite has happened, with districts such as Schenectady suffering deep and damaging state budget cuts at perhaps the worst possible time. For the most part, families have been muddling through the wreckage on their own.
Rather than resign ourselves to this reality, perhaps we can take inspiration from the groups working to bridge the gap, and look for ways to support local youth programming. With our help, they can help the neediest students find new ways to thrive.
Trey Tillman, a junior at Schenectady High School attending the program at Key Hall, told me that he misses school.
Adjusting to online learning “was hard for me,” the 17-year-old said. “I couldn’t go outside, and I was kind of crammed up. The only people I was talking to were the people who lived at my house. Just seeing someone on your screen is not good.”
Jodharam said that after months of isolation the program at Key Hall was “a blessing. … Not everyone gets to see their peers and friends.”
“Before this, if you’d seen me, I was always drowsy, always cranky,” he continued.
Now, “I feel alive.”
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.